Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Monday, October 24, 2005

My pessimistic sermon on the new Dark Ages

Every so often, the Muse strikes me and I post a sermon, but she's depressive. I posted the following in talk.origins, and it's been re-released by Jon Pieret, so I guess I have to put it up here too.
The problem isn't creationism. It isn't Intelligent Design. It's every and all antimodernism that's ever been around from the antivaccination crowd to flat earthers to antigenetics to antiecology to antinuclear power to these two idiocies. It's the fact that most of the world can't cope with defeasible knowledge and change from comfortable certainties. Humans do not, as Aristotle wrongly thought they did, desire to know. Humans desire to be convinced they are right.
We managed for a few generations to convince those who made policy that knowledge gained honestly through toil, but which was tentative and reviseable, was to be preferred to faith and dogma as a way of knowing the world. We made great strides and were too convinced that the world was following us who thought science a good thing. But while the world likes the output of science, they don't like knowledge most of the time. They would be very happy for science to stop right where it is at any time. So far, as no further, would be fine, if the mullahs, priests and prophets had their way.
Since about 1970 the popular mood has shifted away from science in favour of technodazzle, from learning in favour of infotainment. Critics of science moved from legitimate concern to ideological objection (or else why is it that nuclear power is not regarded as a legitimate alternative to hydro-, coal- and the weak solar-power options?).
We are living in the post-scientific era. What we do here is to maintain an interest in real science (it happens that I care most about evolution and biology, but the same thing can be said in a host of other domains). We do this because learning is a Good on its own, but also because as ignorance and opinion overtake knowledge, some learning will be held in common to support the next generation when it needs it.
My fear is that we will see society in the west fall to pieces as the knowledge it needs is overtaken by real junk science for political and social reasons. My hope is that it will persist in societies that still see it as the way to improve their lot, in China, India, Russia, the rest of Asia. They may one day reseed the west after it has passed through the next dark ages. Historians will date it, I think, around 1970. I hope they set the end of it no later than 2100.
Before you go cut your wrists, allow me to say that this isn't new. Society has always had trouble with knowledge, because if it can't be controlled, it tends to undercut the power relations of the status quo. My hope, for I am still that awed teenager at heart, reading all about the marvels of science, is that the bias of those who want to control things doesn't undercut the enterprise of gaining knowledge. It may become harder, but I think it will continue even where the theocratic masses get control.

Or I might just move to Korea.